Horton Hears a What? Theories on Alternate Realities Explained


Courtesy of NASA

After a read-aloud of “Horton Hears a Who!” in the first grade, I left school one day terribly convinced that each flower in my backyard and each blade of grass were homes to microscopic civilizations. I imagined that walking across the lawn was the equivalent of nuclear destruction in their world.

I wondered if we live in the Whoville of a larger world. What if we are that microscopic civilization sitting on a dandelion awaiting deforestation? And who is to say we haven’t been already saved by a hippie, green activist or an analogous elephant?

Or what about films like “Inception,” which suggest we live in alternate realities? Other films, like “The Truman Show” and “The Matrix” continue to raise questions of our own reality, and as “Inception’s” protagonist Dom Cobb describes, “plant the seed,” making us question our own world. From that first Dr. Seuss read-aloud years ago, to my obsessive viewings of these films, my thoughts on our universe have dominoed into unplugged research on theories of alternate realities, like the “Horton Hears a Who!” hypothesis mentioned above and the simulation hypothesis.

The simulation hypothesis, although perhaps not a familiar term to most, is actually a real and widely recognized theory which suggests that our reality is a virtual one created by a more advanced civilization. While mind-boggling at first, I’ve found that this statement doesn’t sound so lunatic once you ponder it a bit.

Imagine this: A 12 year-old boy spends his weekend with a bag of chips in one hand and a mouse in the other, clicking at one of the myriad of computer monitors that sit before him. He oversees the aspects of our reality, much like many of us have done in the gaming world of “The Sims.” The boy is the creator of our world and unconventional to the mainstream idea of an omnipotent, omniscient God that we are all used to.

What if we are living in that very universe, that unreal reality? What if the simulators of our universe are simulated by another universe, which is simulated by another universe, simulated by another universe?

From the telegraph to Skype, phonograph to iTunes, by today’s technological standards, inventions made just two centuries ago appear ridiculously simplistic. Computers are exponentially multiplying in power and the flying rate of technological evolution suggests that this unabated progress may be infinite. Thus, imagine technology’s capabilities 20 years from now.

Those capabilities could include, say, simulating people in a world where they are conscious of their choices. This capability, known as “technological maturity” by the Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom, would enable technology, and therefore us, to simulate an entire universe, inhabited by cognizant humans with freewill, though unaware that their “reality” is not real.

Let us assume for a second that our universe is indeed a simulation in the computer of some advanced civilization. What will ensue for us is a string of endless questionings like: What is science? What is religion? What, then, is the meaning of life? And how is the nature of relationships within countries, races and politicians going to change?

There aren’t many philosophical questions that could make you dumber, but people tend to fixate on these inconclusive questions, which ultimately act as mental termites that chip away at the reality of our life experiences and our love for our family and friends.

Perhaps we are indeed the very subjects of the dramatic irony demonstrated in “Inception.” And unless we, like Truman Burbank, who discovers he has been living in a constructed reality television show, flee our reality and meet with our creators, the simulation and the “Horton Hears a Who!” hypotheses (that we’re living on a floating dandelion) will forever remain implausible, because a hypothesis without evidence cannot be reasoned with.

Despite the challenges these theories pose to my own mental well-being, I remain agnostic—neither definitive in my belief of them nor incredulous. For now, the simulation hypothesis is food for thought. And even if at some point the simulation hypothesis proves true, we should continue our lives just as if we aren’t in a computer simulation.

In “Inception,” after Dom returns from a supposed dream world, he spins his top (which falls when in the real world) to test that he has definitely returned to his reality, but he leaves to hug his kids before seeing the result. The allegorical abandonment of the spinning top shows he doesn’t care anymore, and that his reality lies within his reunion with his children. In a similar vein, our reality should not be formulated by our metaphysical position, but by the people who surround us.